Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Last year, I took my seven-year-old son, Ian, to see a documentary about bees called Queen of the Sun. The movie cataloged the various problems facing honey bees in our world, and likely moved on to tell inspiring stories of folks working to solve the crisis, but I wouldn't know. I didn't get to see the end of it.
About halfway through the movie, Ian turned to me with tears streaming down his cheeks saying, “I want to go. I can't take any more.” For a moment, I almost tried to talk him into staying, but looking at him I realized I had made a mistake. In going to see this documentary, I had broken my own rule about avoiding talk of environmental issues, or disturbing world events, unless Ian had need of the information for his immediate life.
“You really screwed up”, he said to me angrily as we left the pizza place that was showing the
documentary. And in the car: “Why do I need to know all of that? What good is it?”
“What good is it?” I began to ask of myself about the articles I was reading, and the news stories I listened to on the radio in the weeks that followed. Is this helping? Does this empower me to respond? There's a fine line between being aware of what's going on in the world on the one hand, and traumatizing oneself into inaction on the other.
All too often, we unwittingly consume media that feeds the growth of fear, despair, and even denial in us, instead of fostering a response of intelligent and practical action.
Ian and I came home that afternoon from the movie, and we went out back to sit and watch our beehives. Sitting in the cool grass under a blue sky, we watched the bees coming in with bright yellow pollen in what we call their “saddlebags.” Here we sat for about thirty minutes, grounding ourselves in the present moment, and reconnecting to the beauty of the world, surrounded by the lively dance of the bees. As we sat, the shock and jaggedness of the movie and of our fight gave way to feelings of inner warmth and ease.
My approach to large environmental problems, as well as social tragedies like the bombing at the Boston Marathon, is to do something. Something, no matter how small. There can be mindless, compulsive doing, of course, but in our society, we are more likely to get hooked into a cycle of heady non-doing: compulsive reading, worrying, talking, and arguing with one another on Facebook. None of this makes us feel better, because we are wired to respond to crisis, to take action. Our heady response to the world locks us up in our skulls and cuts us off from the healing elements of the world around us.
But even our efforts to defy despair with thoughtful action can meet with failure. A few weeks ago, I discovered that one of our two beehives was dead, likely due to Colony Collapse Disorder. This was the hive where Ian and I sat to restore ourselves. It was at this hive last May that we cheered with the discovery that pollen was going into the hive on the back legs of the worker bees. The virgin queen had successfully mated in midair during her mating flight up to the sun, chased and caught by the strongest of the male bees. That pollen was going into the hive indicated that there was brood to be fed, and a fertile queen to lay eggs. These were my gentle bees, my Italian bees, as I liked to call them. Golden and mellow, prone to taking naps in the afternoon, far less aggressive than the bigger, stronger hive that made it through the winter successfully.
It's not rational, but I still haven't been able to open the hive up to perform the postmortem, to clear the boxes in hopes that new occupants might move in. I’ve been frozen in place where the bees are concerned, unable to write about them in my blog, waiting for some sort of resolution. It's as if I've been assessing whether this path — growing food, keeping bees and chickens, trying to live more lightly on the earth — will bolster my sanity, or erode it. I chose this path because I love the natural world, more deeply than words can express, and am nourished daily by participating in nature’s liturgy through the rituals of growing, tending, harvesting, and learning.
Instead of acting, I retreated from the grief I felt over the loss of this hive, and the plight of the honey bee in general, by reading. And have I ever been reading: about the record-breaking losses of honey bees this year, about how there weren't enough bees to pollinate the almond crops in California for the first time this spring, about how the increasing use of EPA-approved insecticides on farms and in residential areas has created a lethal soup which is poisoning both bees and birds in record numbers. I’ve signed petitions, gently suggested my Facebook friends do the same, and read still more, looking for a solution. But until this week, no movement, no words, and no writing from me.
Then Boston happened. And I remembered something. We are powerful. We are powerful beyond all reckoning. The problem is that we keep forgetting. We keep forgetting and we are accustomed to using our indomitable strength from a place of fear, instead of love.
“Where there is no love, put love, and there you will find love.” These words of the Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, point to the proper role of human beings on this earth, always, but especially when we are tempted to despair. We are here to serve life. And life is served through the actions of love in the world.
Intellectual understanding is far less important in facing the challenges of our time, and our planet, than the willingness to serve life through the tangible actions of love, whatever they might be. And these actions of love will rightly be different for each of us. Under-standing flows from action: you must stand under the Mystery, allow the darkness of unknowing to envelop you, and live your way into the answers in your daily life.
We start with a small action and plant it in the barren soil of a despairing world. There is no one to save us, but us. That’s the whole point of existence. We are the help, the sanity, and the goodness, we’ve been waiting for. Scary, I know, but true. Let our cry for understanding not be “Why?” but instead, “What?” What can I do? What would help? And do it. Let that be your prayer and your meditation: asking “what?” and then answering with nothing less than your life.
The fire of indignation over recent events in Boston melted the icy retreat of fear and sadness inside me. My questioning as to “what” I am to do about the bees in my own backyard has led me to an improbable but delightful answer: brewing a homeopathic tea to feed and strengthen the bees.
Spikenard Farm Honeybee Sanctuary, featured in the very documentary, Queen of the Sun, that I left early last year, developed this healing bee tea recipe. They credit it, in part, to honey bee losses of only 5-10% over the past decade, a real achievement when compared to average bee losses of 33% nationwide over the same time frame.
Making tea for the bees. What other crazy, wonderful things will we do for love? "Where there is no love, put love, and there you will find love." The world we've been waiting for is waiting for us.